liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,

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Fanfiction and the Art of Marketing

*gasp* *hack* *horrors*

“Marketing and fanfiction in the same sentence? That’s soooo wrong! I do this for fun! I do this for me! I do it because I have an artistic urge yearning to be free!”

But if you think about it, marketing is what almost all fanfiction writers do to a greater or lesser degree, whether or not they’re aware they’re doing it.

Don’t believe me?

Okay, fine.

If you’re writing fanfiction just for you, then why are you posting your stories on public Web sites where anyone can read them? Why do you post chapters one-at-a-time in a serial manner (even if the story isn’t a WiP) rather than posting the whole thing at once? Why are you looking for fanfic newsgroups where you can post your work for an audience pre-disposed to liking your stories? Why do you have a LiveJournal account so you can write whatever you want without fear of it being yanked out of the public eye by cautious Web site owners? Why do you get a thrill whenever someone posts a review?

McFly? Hellooooo, McFly? Hey! Where are you going? Don’t walk away yet! I got a simple answer right here.

You want an audience. You want people to read your stuff. You want eyeballs fixed on your every golden word. You want people regularly checking to see if you’ve updated your stories.

Don’t feel bad. Professional writers do the exact same thing. Whether it’s a magazine writer, a novelist, newspaper reporter, or someone toiling anonymously for a client, the writer wants the audience to be eager for the next thing that comes off the keyboard. The difference is professional writers are more aware of the role marketing plays in attracting an audience if only because their paychecks depend on it.

Since fanfic writers don’t get paid, the “coin” is measured in feedback, recommendations, pimping from other people, awards, requests for stories to be archived, and lest we forget, the Google ego search.

This has been something that’s been bubbling in the back of my brain since Writercon in Vegas, but only recently has it somewhat solidified into this bizarre treatise of mine below. It’s something I’ve subconsciously done since I started writing BtVS fanfiction in 2002, but it’s only recently that I’ve consciously realized what I’ve been doing.

Which is funny, since I’m a writer in real life. I should’ve seen the connection and recognized what I was doing a lot sooner than this.

Stop Whining! You’re Giving Me a Headache!
To be honest, several meta discussions on the nature of fanfiction and certain subgenres of fanfiction have brought this connection between fanfiction and marketing into focus:

  • het vs. slash divide.
  • perception that gen and/or het stories are becoming increasingly ghettoized or dismissed as a legitimate form of fanfiction.
  • complaints from some gen/het writers that they feel they’re not taken seriously unless they write male-male (and to a lesser extent female-female) slash.
  • proliferation of “all human AUs” in certain fandoms (BtVS and AtS are not the only ones that have this subgenre) and whether this should be considered “original fiction” or actual “fanfiction”
  • the relative merits of crossovers and whether or not it’s “permissible” to change canon just to make two incompatible universes fit or (my favorite) why no one appreciates crossovers where one universe is utterly unfamiliar to the vast majority of the fanfic public
  • BNFs don’t deserve to be worshipped and are overrated when they produce something/well they’re worshipped because people like their artistic output and you’re just jealous
  • RPFs suck/rock/it’s an invasion of privacy/it’s all good clean fun

  • RPGs are not real fanfiction/oh yes they are
  • character-bashing and Mary Sueing/Marty Stuing

A lot of these discussions very quickly devolve into a “why, god, why” mindset among writers who feel they’ve been unjustly ignored because they’re not writing stories that fit into “trendy” tastes; because they write gen fic instead of shipper fic; because they write het instead of slash; or because they feel they’re being unjustly pissed on because they write for a character or pairing that’s not wildly popular.

Just FYI, the next step after the above complaints and whining is further devolution into accusations of homophobia, rampant snobbery, hints that the other side is mentally unbalanced, generalizations about entire fan groups, invocations of Godwin’s Law and Sturgeon's Law, CAPSLOCK OF RAGE, netspeak, bad spelling, and all sorts of wank.

Between you and me, the issue here is that the writers are asking the wrong question.

It should never be, “Why don’t you love meeeeeeeee?”

It should always be, “Who’s my audience and how do I find them?”

Try Being Inclusive For Once
Using BtVS/AtS as a template (if only because it’s what I’m familiar with), I’m going to talk about “finding the audience.”

The BtVS/AtS fanfiction audience has one umbrella and a lot of subgenres. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Think of it as a rough outline.

The umbrella audience (or “target group” you as a writer you should be marketing to) is fans of BtVS/AtS. It’s a huge umbrella that encompasses a lot of subgroups with very specific reading tastes and interests. However, regardless of the subgenre you tend to write, every single one of these people is your potential audience.

The best stories, IMHO, aims for this huge potential audience.

Let’s be clear: I would never recommend compromising your artistic vision, toning down the sexual and/or language content, or limiting your subject matter just to capture as many eyeballs as you can. Instead, I’m talking about the following:

  • making sure your story is well-written, including technical grammar and spelling issues
  • a good title…I can’t stress how important this is
  • a good story summary, i.e., summing up the plot in a coherent, simple manner; being truthful about the story content; avoiding the temptation to beg potential readers to read and review or threatening to not continue the story unless X number of people review each chapter
  • properly warning people about the content, i.e., correct rating, het, slash, pairing, character death, character bashing, disturbing content, language, sex, etc.
  • the story somewhat matches up with the source material, i.e., spelling the characters’ names correctly; using details from canon (assuming you’re following canon) properly; how (or if) you’re putting the source material’s “rules” into play, and so on
  • the plot has internal logic, i.e., parts build on what was previously written, details remain consistent, characters from the source material are somewhat recognizable to readers, and so on
  • avoiding the use of Mary Sues or Marty Stus, whether it’s “perfecting” a character from the source material or creating OCs to interact with characters from the source material
  • avoiding character-bashing, even for characters you really and truly hate beyond all reason; if you don’t like them don’t use them or use them sparingly

By doing the above, you’d be surprised how many potential readers might be willing to overcome their fanfiction biases and give your story a chance. A lot of this stuff, such as spelling and grammar, is relatively easy. Some of the other points, such as avoiding the dreaded Mary Sue and Marty Stu and ensuring internal plot consistency, takes a little work. The point, however, is that none of the above is an insurmountable obstacle if you’re willing to put a little thought and work into your story.

Finding Your “Fit”
The subgenres (and I admit that I’m painting with a broad brush) are as follows:

Relationships, or Lack Thereof

  • Gen: No ships whatsoever, just straight up story, plot, and/or character pieces. There can be friendships or even romantic relationships, but it’s not the focus.
  • Het Shipper [classic definition]: The focus of the story is heterosexual relationships or canon homosexual relationships. Further subgenres of this subgenre is angst, mush, domestic, PWP, romance, incest, rape, BDSM, kink, etc.
  • Slash Shipper [classic definition]: The focus of the story is slashing characters that are canon heterosexual or canon homosexual (i.e, not that there isn’t any subtext in the source material, the lifeblood of a lot of slashers, but that we didn’t actually see the depicted homosexual or heterosexual relationship in canon). Like het shipper fics, slash fics have the same the exact subgenres in angst, mush, domestic, PWP, romance, incest, rape, BDSM, kink, etc.

Character Love and Hate

  • Character Study: Focuses on one character, often includes other subgenres in the mix, generally short.
  • Character-centric: Not to be confused with “character study,” which is short. Character-centric fics can vary in length, but the main point of view comes primarily from one or (at most) two characters.
  • Ensemble fics: Makes use of many characters and points of view to tell the story.
  • Character-bashing: I know I said to avoid this, but there is an audience for it and it is a subgenre. Generally used to beat down one character the author dislikes, often to build up character(s) the author likes/loves.
  • Mary Sue/Marty Stu: I know I said to avoid this, but there is an audience for it and it is a subgenere. One version takes canon characters and makes them “perfect” and shiny. Others in this group include “self-insertion” fics or fics with perfect OCs.
  • RPFs aka “Actor Fics”: Takes a celebrity (or author if the source material is a book) or the fanfic writer himself/herself and inserts them into the fictional world.

Applying the What If…

  • Alternative Takes: Pulls a scene from canon and tells it from a different character’s point of view or “fills in the blanks” about what was happening just out of sight.
  • Alternate Universe: Different from alternative take. The author changes one canon element to create a different “reality” than what was shown in the source material. Less skilled writers will simply throw out everything they don’t like from the source material and call it AU. A subgenre of this is all-human AUs, which is limited in use to fantasy, horror, or science fiction source material.
  • Crossovers: Universe A meets Universe B. Wackiness ensues.
  • DarkFic: A darker take on canon plots and characters than what exists in the source material. Subgenres include character death, abuse, hurt-comfort, rape, angst, bad acts, and so on

Styles of Storytelling

  • Drabbles: Those 100-word flashfics you can eat like bonbons all day long.
  • Short Stories
  • Novellas
  • Novels
  • SongFic: Writes a story around the words of a song.
  • ScriptFic: Fics that are written using some form of “script” format.
  • Stand-Alone: Exactly what it says. A single story that does not have a prequel, will never have a sequel, and is not part of a series.
  • Serial: A single story that is posted in multiple parts over a period of time.
  • Series: A series of completed stories that take place one after the other in a fanfiction author’s specific take on the canon universe. Stories in the series are generally consistent with each other. Stories may be read as a stand-alone with no reference to other stories in the series or they may carry plot points over from previous stories.

Like I said, not a complete list. More like a “starter list.”

Obviously, there aren’t too many stories (either fanfiction or pro) that are pure examples of only subgenre. Very often stories, including something as short as a drabble, will make use of elements from at least several other subgenres to build plot or character.

Whaddya Know? No Such Thing As a “Pure” Reader Either.
It is something of a trueism that readers will focus on finding stories that fall in their comfort zone or contain elements that they prefer reading about. Like all trueisms, it’s maybe true for the minority, but it’s not true when applied across a broad population.

For example, there is a general assumption that het readers will not read slash. There’s also an assumption that slash readers will not read het.

That’s utter and complete bullshit.

While it maybe true for a subgroup within a given population, by and large, people who read shipper fics (het or slash) have an interest in reading stories about their favorite character in the pairing and are certainly willing to give stories that fall outside their preferred reading material a chance. Very often people who read primarily het or primarily slash will cheerfully cross the divide without even thinking twice about it if a trusted source recommends the story or if they stumble across it and are intrigued enough to keep reading.

Most readers will at least sample most of the subgenres. They may not do it often. They may only limit themselves to certain authors when traveling outside their preferred reading material. But the fact is, most people will do it.

False Assumptions: Both Writers and Readers
Now, one thing I do admit that drives me completely around the bend is when I, as a writer, have someone tell me, “Eeeewwwww! You write het? I’ll never, ever read your stuff.”

I bite my tongue to prevent myself from saying, “Have you ever even tried my stuff? If you haven’t, way to be narrow-minded there, sport.”

Instead, I point out that I may write het, but I read and enjoy an awful lot of slash. If I’m really lucky, the other person also writes fanfic. If I’m doubleplusgood lucky, I’ve read that person’s story and can actually talk about it with them and give them positive feedback. I’m over the moon with joy if we move on to a mechanics discussion about writing, characterization, and plotting.

It’s kind of fun watching the other person’s head implode when the stars align like that.

Part of the problem is that readers may have very fixed ideas in their heads about the authors. If someone writes only gen or het stories, it’s necessarily not because they don’t like slash, have a secret fear of homosexuals, or is a prude.

There may be other reasons for it: the author may be a canon whore; the author can’t write smut or sexual situations even if their very souls depended on it; the author for various personal reasons may not feel comfortable writing about something they don’t know and aren’t familiar with; or maybe, just maybe, the author in question doesn’t really focus on ships at all and the het or homosexual aspect of the characters is utterly beside the point.

All of the above, by the way, very much applies to me.

However, just as readers make some false assumptions about writers, writers make some pretty whacked out assumptions about readers.

If you remember the list of writer gripes above, there is an assumption that readers are very narrowly focused to the point of snobbery. There is an assumption that readers OHMYGODWONTEVENGIVEMEACHANCE because all of them won’t sample anything outside their comfort zone. In the minds of these writers, readers are nothing more than sheep led by the BNFs to love certain trendy story types or writers to the point where writers and stories that are “not fashionable” will whither and die on the vine for lack of readership.

Very often, writers fail to take some things into consideration:

  • How long have you been doing this again?
    If you just posted your first story in a given fandom a month ago, have you ever considered that your audience hasn’t found you yet? If it’s a fandom that’s been around for awhile, I can almost guarantee that there are writers who’ve been around a hell of a lot longer than you which is why they’re getting the props and you’re not. This shit takes time, grasshopper, so if you’re serious learn a little patience.

  • What have you done to help yourself?
    You ain’t Mohammed and the mountains ain’t coming to you. You’ve got to get your fuzzy ass out there and tell people that you’ve got a story. There are a million ways a writer can pimp themselves (more on that below). Just throwing your story up on a general, catch-all archive like Fan Fiction Dot Net or sticking only to newsgroups pre-disposed to liking your stories ain’t gonna win you popular acclaim.

  • Your stories really do appeal to a limited audience.
    Hate to break it to you, but fanfiction is subject to market forces. If, for example, you write about an unpopular character (or a character that’s less popular than the hothot character of the moment) or if you write about a crossover where almost no one is familiar with the other universe, guess what? You’ve got a bigger hurdle to jump than writers who put out stories that please the vox populi. That means you’ve got to be better, smarter, and show a little more skill to prove you’re worth paying attention to. Plus, you have to be more patient because it’s going to take longer for you to get noticed no matter how hard you pimp.

  • Check out the crowd you run with, it may be used against you.
    Hard truth, I know, but still true. In Buffy fandom, for example, there is a bias against certain fangroups and certain fanfiction lists. Whether it’s deserved or not is utterly beside the point. The fact is the perception is there and it’s up to you to prove that you don’t fit the stereotype. If, for example, you’re a het Xander-centric writer who only posts to the XanderZone, be prepared for some *ahem* interesting reactions from other people. Is it fair to paint a fanfiction list with more than 1,800 people with such a broad brush? Nope. But if you don’t poke your head out of the rabbit hole and let other people who may actually be hostile to het Xander-centric stories at least see your stuff, then you’re kind of asking for it. Hearts and minds, grasshopper, and sometimes you gotta do it one person at a time.

  • Maybe you really do suck.
    Okay, that’s harsh, but there may also be some truth to it. One of the most critical skills a writer needs to develop (after the basics, that is) is the ability to self-criticize. Be your harshest critic, go over your old stories with a fine-toothed comb, don’t get huffy when you get well-reasoned criticism from readers and instead really look to see if there’s some merit in what they’re saying. I guarantee that if you’re really serious about improving your writing and attracting more readers (as opposed to just churning out crap), you’re always going to find something that makes you seriously cringe and call for a re-write.

Not Everyone Is Gonna Love You, So Get Over It
That’s not to say there aren’t lines readers won’t cross in reading material. For example, I stay very, very far away from fics with “romantic rape,” incest, or bash Xander as a character. I won’t even try reading them because I know I’ll get pissed off.

Much as I don’t like and avoid these subgenres, I always give the author props for putting up the necessary warnings that tells me right off the bat: “You won’t like this.” Where I get angry is when the author puts up no warnings (lying by omission; false advertising) and I get blind-sided these elements (yes, it’s happened).

Please note that out of a potentially endless list of possibilities, I’ve only listed three lines I won’t cross in my reading material. That means I’ll at least try 95% of the subgenres out there, the 5% I won’t even touch with a 10-foot pole is nothing big in the grand scheme of things.

And let’s all be blunt here: Popularity has something to do with it. No, not necessarily your personal popularity, but the popularity of what you write. As I’ve stated before, if you focus on characters(s) that are not as popular as others or write in a genre that tends to scare people off or if you get a reputation as someone who ain’t all that, then there are readers who won’t even look in your direction.

If you think jumping fandoms, jumping ships, or jumping characters is going to help you gain readers, think again. Yes, you may gain readers, but I can almost guarantee that you’ll lose readers in the bargain. Witness the huge kerfluffle that occurred on LiveJournal two yeas ago when a handful of Spike/Buffy writers switched to writing Spike/Xander. Readers were upset. Writers who remained with Spike/Buffy or had been working Spike/Xander for a long time were resentful. There were fights, recriminations, accusations, and (how can we forget) CAPSLOCK OF RAGE. It didn’t matter that most of these writers who made the switch were simply no longer inspired by the relationship that originally captured their attention and decided to focus on something else.

If you’re going to make the jump, make the jump for the right reasons because one way or the other you’re going to pay for it. It’s the nature of the beast, so accept it and move on. Making the switch just to catch the latest trendy fanfiction fashion in an effort to attract more readers is absolutely the wrong reason to make a jump. Do it because you want to. Do it because you’ve lost interest in what you were doing. Do it because your imagination has been captured by something else. Do it because you think it’ll be fun to try.

All the above sounds like I’m negating my point already, but I’m really not. What I’m trying to point out is that while most readers have much more universal tastes than writers are willing believe when they’re in the “woe is me” mindset, sometimes writers just don’t hit the sweet spot. It may be what you choose to write about, or maybe they don’t like the way you write. Either way, it’s a no harm, no foul situation.

But here’s the point: You may try building an inclusive story where you want readers to dive in and feel comfortable with the surroundings. Your job is to put it in front of them. If they don’t like what you’re serving up, taking it personally is foolish. They don’t know you. You don’t know them. It can’t possibly be personal.

[Note: That’s not to say that it can’t get personal. I’ve seen readers set off “personal carpet bombing” because they don’t like a writer’s opinions or are jealous that this writer is getting props they feel they should get for their own work. I’ve seen writers set off “personal carpet bombing” over equally stupid shit.]

Okay, Genius. What Does It All Mean in Your Tiny Pea Brain?
What it means is that if you want readers, then stop bitching and go out there and get them. There are plenty of ways to do it, if you have time and energy:

Playing It Safe
General catch-all fanfiction Web sites
Say what you will about sites like Fan Fiction Dot Net, it’s a great starting point. It’s a way to get your stories in front of a lot of eyeballs. Since they’re there anyway, there’s a good chance they’ll give you a shot if your story summary sounds interesting.

Try posting your story to newsgroups, autoarchive Web sites, LJ communities, etc. that cater to your particular focus. There are plenty of places that have a narrow focus on a particular fandom, specific characters, subgenres like crossoves and darkfic, specific ships, and het/slash only groups. People who frequent these areas are pre-disposed to wanting to like your stories. They will make the effort to sample your work. They may not stick around to the end of your masterpiece, but they’ll at least give you a fair hearing.

Stick Your Head Out of the Rabbit Hole
Sites like LiveJournal, GreatestJournal, Blogger, and other places allow you to post whatever you want without restriction. Plus, it’s a great networking tool through the use of “friending.” You’d be surprised how friends of friends of friends eventually find your little corner. You’d be surprised how many of them just might stick around.

Pimping Is Good
There are plenty of forums where you can go and post a link to your masterpiece, many of which will take pimpage from all corners of your particular fandom galaxy. Let people know, “Hey! I got a story you might like here!” Make sure to give them all of the pertinent information, including any warnings that might apply. Make sure you post to the appropriate forums (spamming is bad, m’kaaaay) in the forums with a narrow focus.

Walk Without a Tightrope Occasionally
Ficathons and Fiction Challenges
Okay, so you’ve got a particular focus as an author, but even you have to admit that it’s a hard hill to climb for various reasons that may or may not be out of your control. How about busting out of your self-imposed prison and trying something different for a change? Sometimes you do need to give people a taste of what they like if you want them to meet you half way.

The really nice thing about this method is that you don’t have to write anything you positively, absolutely don’t want to write. You don’t want to write about a particular character or relationship? Fine. You can stipulate that. Want to avoid writing a specific subgenre? Stipulate that as well.

The bonus here is that you as a writer get to spread your wings a little. If you’re forced to write characters, relationships, or scenarios you don’t normally write, you’d be shocked at what you can accomplish if you set your mind to it and employ all your mad skillz that you learned while keeping it safe.

Network, Network, Network
Guess what sport, you are an ambassador!
Whenever readers and other writers meet you, to an extent you do somewhat represent “your kind of people.” Obviously, most people are aware that you’re a well-rounded person with a life beyond fanfiction, but if they know you primarily as a fanfiction writer and have pigeonholed you as a “type,” it’s up to you to be more than the stereotype.

Sooooo, you hate Xander’s little ass and would like to shoot him into the sun? Can you please not tell the het and slash Xander-centric writers in excruciating detail how much you hate the son of a bitch and how stupid they are for writing about such a worthless character? You secretly have a desire to beat any and all Spike/Buffy shippers senseless with a clue stick for whatever reason? Do the world a favor shove your freakin’ moralistic soapbox under the goddamn table, pack away the tinfoil hat, and be rational.

By all means, have a debate. Be honest. Discuss what excites you about the things you love and they love and why both of you cling to what you do. You’d be surprised that many times the other person does not fit the stereotype. Often, you’ll take them by surprise as well.

Whatever you do, do not be rude, condescending, or mean. The second you put the other person down simply because you don’t like what they write sight unseen, you’re reinforcing every stereotype in the book about you.

Get to “Know” People Virtually or In Real Life
The fanfiction writer and reader community can be incredibly supportive in a number of ways. If readers know you are open to criticism and comment, that you won’t get riled at them if they point out a typo, you’ll get some honest-to-god feedback that will help you improve as a writer. If you know that your readers are willing to give you a chance when you step outside your comfort zone, you’d be amazed how much more courageous you’ll you’ll become.

But that’s just the fandom side of the equation. It, by no means, is the whole picture.

In some ways, blogging makes this ability to cross barriers so much easier. We all learn snippets about other people’s lives in a fairly simple manner. People can learn about each other beyond just fandom or even country of origin. It’s an exciting way to be exposed to different viewpoints (not just in fandom) that just may reside outside your personal comfort zone.

This piece of advice goes beyond just “marketing” your fanfiction and more comes down to “marketing” yourself. Friends can be quite the blessing and anything that helps people make personal connections cannot ever be considered a bad thing. Sometimes that connection comes because you wrote a story that touched someone. Sometimes you make that connection because of an LJ entry that inspired you to respond. Either way, nothing beats getting to know people.

Besides, there may come a day in a real life situation where you can help them or they can help you and that, grasshoper, is bigger and better than any pissing match over fanfiction.

Thanks for hanging on until the end of this monstrosity.

I will eventually make myself available for any flames or tomato throwing at your earliest convenience.


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